Daily SMS Reminders Can Help Improve Health

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Before the winter cold and flu season hits I decided to do what I can to get healthy and stay healthy. Last week I began a 21 day cleanse that involves eating lots of fruits and vegetables as well as taking supplements. A lot of supplements. So many that I really have trouble keeping track.

But luckily the company that makes the cleanse I’m using offers support via SMS reminders. Three times a day I get reminders to take the supplements. As a busy person I need those reminders to keep myself on track. I know how many to take and when to take them because of these reminders.

Could I set up my own reminders, leave sticky notes, or have alarms go off three times a day? I could, but it is so easy when the company already does all that for me. And it turns out SMS message reminders for health related topics help people get and stay healthy.

Results of a US study

Last year the US Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) conducted a systematic review of health related SMS messaging studies, 60 in total. The studies focused on “health promotion and disease prevention” using SMS messaging.

The overall conclusion HRSA made was SMS messaging improved health outcomes. However there were some issues when it came to how the topic is studied in general. For example, some participants opt out before the studies are completed. This makes it more difficult to assess the real impact of the programs and draw statistically significant (fancy words for a “real effect” versus a random one) conclusions.

The HRSA review made an observation about people opting out of the messaging before the study was over:

“The two studies that did not use tailored text message content were among the studies with the highest participant attrition. This finding may support the notion that untailored health messages are less engaging for participants than tailored messages.”

People respond better to more personal messaging. That’s a consistent and almost obvious theme no matter how you are communicating. Health, though, is such a personal topic it’s even more important to make sure the person feels like the message is for them.

There was another important observation from the studies involved in the review. When both phone and SMS messaging were used as reminders, some studies didn’t see that much difference between the groups that received phone calls and the groups that received SMS messages. But, they said:

“There was no difference in attendance rates between text message and phone message reminders. However, the cost of text message reminders was lower than the cost of phone message reminders.”

So in some cases, SMS messages were just as effective as a personal phone call, but cost the provider much less.

A global perspective

Another study from Health Psychology Review reported “SMS messages had a small, positive, significant effect on a broad range of healthy behaviour. This effect was maximised when multiple SMS messages per day were used.”

The study included people from developing and developed nations and a variety of ages, ethnicity, health status, and socio-economic backgrounds. This means the positive effect seen spans countries and other demographic information. It appears that daily SMS messaging about health topics, including reminders, can lead to healthier people.

I know I probably would have given up on my own health initiative without the reminders. It’s easy to forget to do a step, then justify when it’s ok to give up. You may have had the same experience if you’ve ever tried to follow a health related New Year’s resolution. But I’m on track thanks to the messages. If you’re a health provider of any kind, take my word, and all of the studies discussed above and see if SMS messaging can help improve your clients’ health too.

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